As the USC men’s basketball team returns to the friendly confines of the Galen Center for a two-game homestand, the Trojans will first play host on Thursday to a team that has encountered much of the same success as the Trojans.
While the Washington State Cougars (13-5, 3-3) still have the opportunity to play in the postseason, its up-and-down performance in conference play mirrors that of the Trojans’ (11-6, 3-2) thus far.
Sitting in fourth place in the Pac-10, the Cougars have bolstered their record with wins over Arizona and Stanford but have failed to perform against some of the more successful teams in the conference, falling to California at home and getting blown out by Arizona State on the road.
USC can certainly relate; only days after sweeping the Arizona schools at home, the team faltered on the road, losing to Stanford at the buzzer and to Cal by eight points. They recently rebounded by overwhelming UCLA at Pauley Pavilion 67-46, which moved the Trojans into a two-way tie for second place in the conference.
“We only have 13 games left to play, and we need to give our best effort every single time we play those games,” O’Neill said. “We’re 3-2 in the league, and we’re just trying to get to 4-2. Take it one game at a time and see where it goes.”
The key to the Cougars’ success this season has come in the form of sophomore guard Klay Thompson ,who averaged 22.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, and freshman guard Reggie Moore, who averages 13.4 points and 4.6 assists. They will square off against the Trojans’ experienced tandem of seniors point guard Mike Gerritty and guard Dwight Lewis, who have played increasingly vital roles since Gerrity’s introduction to the team one month ago.
“We played a lot of good offensive teams … we’ve got to do the same job against [the Cougars] tomorrow as we did against them,” O’Neill said. “They are a team that generates a lot of offense out of early stuff and second shots. It’s a necessity that we play great defense. Because of the way we’ve competed and played hard, we’ve put ourselves in a position to be a good team that way.”
Despite the similarities between the teams, the location of the game seems to play into USC’s favor beyond simply having the home crowd behind it.
The Cougars have had major struggles playing on the road, and it seems to be a deeper problem than their 2-3 record indicates: Washington State has been beaten by a total of 47 points in its three losses, and its best road win was a two-point victory over 9-9 Arizona.
Meanwhile, the Trojans have found continued success at the Galen Center and now have a 7-2 record that includes wins over then-No. 8 Tennessee and Arizona State.
Nevertheless, O’Neill sees every game as equal, stressing that the absence of a postseason for the Trojans has only made games more significant.
“I’m approaching every game for us like its a postseason game, because we don’t have a postseason,” said O’Neill. “For us, what’s important is we don’t waste any days, cause this group’s only going to play together for 13 more games.”